Communicating across cultures: why we fail

Communicating across cultures: why we failPeople break up by text message these days, so I’ve been told.  Expectant parents announce their pregnancies on Facebook. And when my daughters are home, not a minute goes by without some sort of ping announcing an IM, BBM, tweet, Skype call, email, or text.

We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to communicating electronically, but none of those shiny gadgets and apps will ever completely replace face-to-face interaction. At some point, we all need to connect IRL. The problem is that even using the most basic, stripped-down medium available — good old-fashioned face time — there’s no guarantee the message we want to convey is the one that’s actually being received. Throw culture into the mix, and you can see why expats sometimes run into trouble when they venture out in their host countries.

Interculturalist LaRay M. Barna spelled out the hazards in “Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication,” which should be required reading for anyone contemplating expat life. Here’s a snapshot of the six obstacles:

Assumption of similarities

There’s something comforting about the notion that underneath our crazy differences, we’re all just people. And to an extent, I suppose that’s true: we all have the same biological needs and experience similar emotions. But culture is what guides the expression of those needs and emotions, and woe betide the expat who fails to take this into account.

Barna suggests that is a better strategy is to assume those from other cultures have different attitudes and behaviours. That way, our “reactions and interpretations [can] be adjusted to fit what is happening.”

Language differences

Failing to consider context and multiple shades of meaning, even with something as simple as “yes” and “no,” can lead to problems. “Yes” can mean “no” in cultures where an outright refusal would mean a loss of face. “No” can mean “I’m being polite by refusing your offer, but if you ask me again I’ll accept graciously.” If you don’t understand the cultural context, the words themselves won’t tell the whole story.

The K-girls and I learned the hard way never to answer a yes/no question with just “yes” or “no.” When we first met, I would ask a negative question: for example, “Don’t you love this cake?” They would answer “yes,” meaning “yes, you’re correct — I don’t love this cake.” I would interpret that as “yes, I find this cake delicious and I’d like some more.” And Julie or Joann would end up with a hunk of something gooey and chocolatey that they’d quite clearly indicated they didn’t want, and think I was either sadistic or very rude. (Or possibly both.) We now make a point of asking for clarity instead of assuming we understand.

Nonverbal misinterpretations

Barna writes that

“people from different cultures inhabit different sensory realities. They see, hear, feel and smell only that which has some meaning or importance for them. They abstract whatever fits into their personal world of recognition and then interpret it through the frame of reference of their own culture.”

thumbs upokay signA classic example of nonverbal misinterpretation is the use of gestures. While preparing for a presentation on intercultural communication recently, I asked my daughters how they would indicate approval without using words. Elder Daughter flashed the “okay” sign (near right), and Younger Daughter gave the thumbs up (far right). These are perfectly acceptable gestures in our culture, but in many parts of the world, they’re considered obscene. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that injecting offensive body language into a conversation is not going to win you any friends in your new country.

Preconceptions and stereotypes

“Stereotypes are overgeneralized, secondhand beliefs that provide conceptual bases from which we make sense out of what goes on around us, whether or not they are accurate or fit the circumstances.”

Belonging to a culture provides us with a basic understanding of our world. In an alien culture, where familiar cues are absent, we tend to get anxious, and that anxiety may cause us to fill in the blanks — not always correctly. Once we have an idea in mind, we’re likely to accept evidence that supports it more readily than evidence that refutes it. The problem is that when stereotypes take hold, objectivity falls by the wayside. If we approach new people with our minds already made up, we close the door on effective communication. And we miss out on all the possibilities that encounter may have held.

Tendency to evaluate

It’s common to look at behaviour from our own cultural standpoint and judge it accordingly. Opening our minds and exercising a little empathy helps us assess things from the other person’s point of view. This doesn’t mean we have to reject our values and adopt those of the host culture. It just means that deciding what’s right and wrong based on the norms back home could get in the way of understanding the culture and its people.

High anxiety

Uncertainty leads to anxiety, and too much anxiety, Barna tells us, “requires some form of relief, which too often comes in the form of defenses, such as skewing of perceptions, withdrawal, or hostility.” I tend to withdraw in those situations — it feels as if my brain is overloaded and starts shutting down. I’m sure it comes across as disinterest or even arrogance, but it’s simply a defense mechanism, and it definitely puts a damper on the conversation.

That’s Barna’s take on the barriers to intercultural communication. What’s yours?


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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12 Responses to Communicating across cultures: why we fail

  1. Hi Maria,

    I’ve lived in China where it really is difficult to find cultural similarities but you don’t have to stray too far from your own culture to experience cultural differences.

    I’m a Brit working in Germany. I teach at a university in Munich where the students have to spend at least one study semester overseas and complete an internship with an overseas company. Those who go to the UK, or another predominantly Anglo-Saxon country, where one would think the culture is not too different from Germany, are surprised at the level of informality right from the beginning.

    For example, the students often have a hard time calling their boss ‘John’ or ‘Steven’ instead of Mr ‘X’ or Mr Y, as it would be in Germany. Some adapt quickly and enjoy this informality, while others genuinely find it uncomfortable. Then there are those who interpret informality with an opportunity to be lax, only to find that ‘John’, their boss, is not always the seemingly friendly, cheery guy they were first introduced to. This is exactly why they go overseas–to find out first hand that not everyone is the same as they are!

    • Maria says:

      It’s the best education for them, isn’t it? My boss in Singapore told me that when he went to university in Australia, he cried because the students called the profs by their first name. He thought he’d made a terrible mistake — this university couldn’t possibly be any good. He soon found out that in fact, it was possible to get a good education without the strict formality he was accustomed to. I think he became much more open-minded as a result.

    • Sine says:

      Being German myself, I can totally attest to that. The informality of first names was the thing I most loved about America when I first arrived as a 16-year old, and I’ve never quite recovered. To this day I still prefer to speak English to other Germans I meet abroad for that very reason – there is no awkwardness in figuring out how you’ll introduce and address each other. In German, you always wonder if the other person would welcome the informality or think you’re being rude. You never know, and it puts such an unnecessary burden between people, which is maybe one reason Germans tend to be less open towards new people.

  2. This is really interesting. I’ve lived in the US since 1988 (from Canada) and one of the key issues for any expat is understanding the dominant cultural myths or beliefs that also color every interaction…Americans persist (in the face of much evidence to the contrary) they are all equal, that anyone can be President, that hard work is rewarded, etc. Three recessions in 20 years might, you think, dent these beliefs…but no!

    Two subjects are hugely taboo in the U.S., race and class. You simply cannot discuss either of them without provoking anxiety or even rage for having done so explicitly. My new book is about my retail job. I was the only Caucasian female there most of the time, and often one of very few Caucasians….I was deemed a “racist” for what, to my Canadian eyes, for saying so. To me, saying someone is black or Hispanic was merely descriptive — a blue dress, a Hispanic man — but here is considered pejorative. Only my editor understood, as she edits books by Canadians and Americans and she sees how differently we see (and write) as a result.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Caitlin, for another interesting comment. It’s amazing the ways in which two cultures which, at first glance, seem so similar are actually quite different.

  3. Judy says:

    On a lighter note, I encountered the hilarity mixed with frustration caused by those who say Yes when they mean No and will say anything rather than be the bearer of bad news . In particular I remember a conversation with my Indian tailor’s assistant in Dubai. “Sorry Madam, Shetty not here. Next week, Madam.” “Alright, so I’ll come next Wednesday?” “If you wish, Madam.” “Ah, maybe I should come in two weeks?” “Yes, Madam” (but looking downcast). “Has he gone home to visit his family?” “Yes Madam.” (looking more hopeful). “Would it best if I come back next month.” “Oh yes, Madam.” (head bobbing wildly). In other words, Shetty had just left for his annual one month’s leave, and I was SOL for getting my dress made anytime soon. 😉

  4. Crystal says:

    Hi Maria

    When I was writing a post about working with your maid/helper, I talked about things that seem “obvious.” This is perhaps my classic downfall. Assuming that something that is so blatantly obvious to me is equally obvious to someone else. After seeing me toast the bread for a grilled cheese sandwich, B assumed you toast the bread for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…I wondered what on earth she was thinking. PBJ is SO ingrained in American culture that I could not quite grasp that someone wouldn’t know how to do it.

    I think it’s easy to remember cultural differences on many things, but those little “obvious” assumptions will get you every time.

    • Maria says:

      Great example, and it’s easy to see how it happened. How was toasted PBJ? B might have done you a favour there!

      • Crystal says:

        Have to confess, I tossed it and modeled how to make one our way.

        The incident also makes me think of an infamous elementary school exercise. We ask the kids to tell us the steps in how to make a PBJ and then do EXACTLY what they say. Put peanut butter on the bread…you put the jar of peanut butter on the closed packet of bread, and such.

        I don’t know how you fix it, but it’s one of those things that were it to show up on a standardized test, it would put expat kids from other countries at a severe disadvantage. I know that there’s supposed to be some kind of “cultural sensitivity” assessment done of the questions, but again…those “obvious” things slip through.

      • Maria says:

        Today I saw a news article about the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition — an annual fair that has run in Toronto the last two weeks of August since 1879. The big draw at the food pavilion this year is a hamburger that uses Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead of a bun. Maybe a toasted PBJ wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all?

      • Sine says:

        Interesting comment on standardized tests, you are absolutely right. I remember a statistics test in business school that assumed I knew how many ounces are in a pound, but if you didn’t grow up in the US you have no idea! Another time we were playing “taboo” and I had to guess the word “teapot” – my game partner just stood up and hummed the “little teapot” song and again I had no idea what that meant. There are many such instances when you move between cultures and it takes years and years to fully understand it all, and those things that would have happened in your childhood you just never really catch up on. Then again, that’s the beauty of being an expat and learning those things, as opposed to just being a tourist where you never even discover those differences.

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